Maybe because I don’t remember it much as a child. Because I was happy.
Now all that’s left is grief and yelling and unpaid bills.
At seventeen, I don’t know a lot about the world, but I find that being unwanted and unhappy is harder to endure than having nothing to eat.
The knot in my stomach tightens. Maybe if I puke before I leave the house, it will loosen my nerves and clear my head. Except I can’t afford to lose the calories.
A deep breath confirms the buttons on my nicest shirt are holding together, my considerable cleavage still conservatively hidden. The knee-length skirt fits better this morning than it did in the thrift store, and the ballet flats… Forget it. There’s nothing I can do about the cracked soles and rips in the toes. They’re the only shoes I own.
I step out of the bathroom and tiptoe through the kitchen, combing shaky fingers through my hair. The wet strands fall against my back and soak my shirt. Shit, is my bra showing through the damp fabric? I should’ve worn my hair up or dried it, but I’m out of time, which further hardens my stomach.
Jesus, I shouldn’t be this anxious. It’s only the first day of school. I’ve done this numerous times.
But it’s my senior year.
The year that will determine the rest of my life.
One mistake, a less-than-perfect GPA, a violation of dress code, the tiniest infraction will steer the spotlight away from my talent and shine it on the poor girl from Treme. Every step I take in the judgmental, marble halls of Le Moyne Academy is an endeavor to prove I’m more than just that girl.
Le Moyne is one of the most recognized, elite, and expensive performing arts high schools in the nation. It’s intimidating. Fucking terrifying. Doesn’t matter if I’m the best pianist in New Orleans. Since my freshman year, the academy has been looking for a reason to expel me, to fill my competitive spot with a student who brings talent and financial endowments.
The stench of stale smoke roots me in the reality of my life. I flick the kitchen wall switch, illuminating piles of crushed beer cans and empty pizza boxes. Crusty dishes fill the sink, cigarette butts litter the floor, and what the hell is that? I lean over the counter and squint at the burnt residue in the bowl of a spoon.
Motherfucker. My brother used our best utensils to cook coke? I toss it in the trash with a surge of anger.
Shane claims he can’t pay the bills, but the jobless bastard always has money to party. Not only that, the kitchen was spotless when I fell asleep, notwithstanding the mold blooming on the walls and the laminate flaking away from the countertops. This is our home, goddammit. The only thing we have left. He and Mom have no idea what I’ve endured to keep us current on the mortgage payments. For their sake, I hope they never find out.
Soft fur brushes my ankle, drawing my attention to the floor. Huge golden eyes stare up out of an orange tabby face, and my shoulders loosen instantly.
Schubert tilts his scruffy chin and rubs his whiskers against my leg, his tail twitching in the air. He always knows when I need affection. Sometimes I think he’s the only love left in this house.
“I have to go, sweet boy,” I whisper, stretching down to scratch his ears. “Be a good kitty, okay?”
I remove the last slice of banana bread from its hiding spot in the back of the pantry, relieved Shane hadn’t found it. I wrap it in a paper towel and attempt to make a quiet-as-possible escape to the front door.
Our crumbling house is one room wide and five rooms long. No hallways. With the rooms set up one in front of the other and all the doors lined up, I could stand on the back stoop, shoot a shotgun at the front door, and not hit any walls.
But I could hit Shane. Deliberately. Because he’s a fucking burden and a waste of life. He’s also nine-years older, a hundred-and-fifty-pounds bigger, and the only sibling I have.
The hundred-year-old wood planks groan beneath my feet, and I suck in a breath, waiting for Shane’s drunken roar.
Silence. Thank you, Jesus.
Holding the wrapped bread against my chest, I pass through Mom’s room first. I walked through thirty minutes ago, half-asleep and shuffling for the bathroom in the dark. But with the kitchen light shining through the doorway, the lump in her bed looks unmistakably human.
I stumble with surprise, trying to remember the last time I saw her. Two…three weeks ago?
A flutter stirs behind my breastbone. Maybe she came home to wish me luck on my first day?
Three quiet strides carry me to the bed. The rectangular rooms are cramped and narrow, but the ceilings soar twelve feet or taller. Daddy used to say the pitched roof and long front-to-back layout was a ventilation design to ensure all his love could flow through.